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M. Frumkin

The Origin of Patents *

Journal of the Patent Office Society 27 (3)

March 1945, 143-149

Compiler Press        

It is little known that patents, so important in our day, are really of remote origin; their ever-increasing number is the best illustration of the amazing rate of technical progress.  Since the establishment of patent laws in nearly all countries, several millions have been granted.  In the United States alone the number of grants far exceeds two millions; throughout the world over a thousand patents are issued every day.

For our purpose we may define a patent only as a temporary and exclusive right granted for the exploitation of a new invention.

It would be vain to look for patents in ancient Greece and Rome.  During the classic period useful arts were regarded with contempt, and although inventions were made by men such as Archimedes, they were looked on as mere frivolities, scarcely befitting a philosopher.  In Rome there was another obstacle, namely, the principles of Roman Law.  Nevertheless a Greek compiler, Athenaeus, of the third century A.D., mentions in his Deipnosophistae that several centuries B.C. there were culinary competitions in the city of Sybaris, which became proverbial for its luxury.  The successful cook, inventor of a new dish, was given an exclusive right to prepare it during one year.

During the Middle Ages we find many industrial privileges, but in most cases it is difficult to say whether they had any connection with new inventions.  Benjamin of Tudela, who travelled ‘round the world’ from 1160-1173 (it was, of course, the world as known at that time: Europe and the Near East), mentions in his Itinerary that the King of Jerusalem granted against the payment of an annual fee an exclusive right to certain dyers, and we know that in the Middle Ages the whole art of dyeing consisted of trade secrets.

* Reprinted from Chambers Journal, January, 1943.


The first mention of windmills is to be found in a ‘diploma’ granted in 1105 by a near relative of William the Conqueror, Count William of Mortagne, who authorises a Norman abbot to establish them in a certain area.  It is not impossible that this grant was connected with the invention of the windmill - at least we may believe it to be so, until we discover an earlier mention of that device.

Still in the Middle Ages, we see the first real patents appear in Italy.  Filippo Brunelleschi, the great architect, who in 1419 began to build the magnificent cupola of the cathedral of Florence, is also the earliest patentee on record.  In 1421 the State of Florence granted him an exclusive right, valid for three years, to build and use a device of his invention for transporting heavy loads on the Arno and other rivers, and it was even stipulated that the work of anybody imitating his invention should be burned.

Long before 1400 the government of Venice was interested in inventions and officials were appointed to examine inventors’ projects.  After 1450 the grant of real patents became quite systematic in Venice.  The main craft of Venice was glass-making, the secrets of which were jealously guarded; the death penalty awaited Venetian glass-blowers who tried to practise their art abroad.  But glass was then so precious that many Venetian artists were tempted to establish works abroad, and knowing the Venetian patent system, the first thing they sought in foreign countries was a monopoly for the new methods they brought with them.

In this way patents were introduced into various countries during the sixteenth century; and it is curious to note how many of these early patents were granted for glass manufacture and how many Italians there were among the first patentees.

In England the first patents for invention were granted during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.  (According to an erroneous tradition patents were known at the time of Edward III.; this may be dismissed as a pure legend.)


At the end of her reign public opinion became irritated by many grants which had no connection whatever with new inventions, but were just monopolies granted as a reward to courtiers, limiting still further the already limited freedom of trade.

At that time patents were also granted in Germany and France.  Henry II., King of France, introduced a novelty which still remains a basic principle of patent law, namely, that an inventor must fully disclose his invention, so that the public may benefit from it after the patent has expired.  The disclosure is now made by printing a description of the invention.  In 1555 the first ‘patent specification’ was printed by royal command for an instrument maker, Abel Foullon, inventor of a kind of range-finder.  A copy of that curious booklet (Usaige & Description de l’holometre) is kept at the British Museum Library.  The printed date thereon-1555 - was cunningly altered by pen to 1561.  As the patent was granted in 1551 for a term of ten years, we may assume that someone held back the issue of that book in order to minimise the chance of piracy.  The same forgery was discovered also on most other copies of that book, kept in other libraries.

To return to Venice, we find that the great invention of printing led to grants of a new kind, which we know under the name of ‘registered designs’.  In 1501 the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius designed a new type, not straight, but sloping, and more like handwriting.  Aldus received in 1502 a Venetian patent for that type, which we all know under the name of italic.  This kind of grant also was imitated elsewhere: In 1557 Henry II again issued an exclusive right to a printer, Granjon, who designed another new type, called ‘caractere de civilité’ but this type, unlike the italic, is not used any more.

Back in England, we find that during the early seventeenth century Parliament fought against the abuse of monopolies granted by the Crown.  As early as 1602 Francis Bacon, speaking in the House of Commons, laid down a quite modern principle, namely, that monopolies should be granted only for the introduction of new manu­factures. T he Duke of Alba, the bloodthirsty Spanish


governor of the Netherlands, formulated the same principle in a letter written about twenty-five years earlier.  It is difficult to imagine such a person as having a modern legal mind!

Under James I. the struggle ended by victory for Parliament, and in 1624 the Statute of Monopolies was enacted, partly owing to the efforts of a remarkable judge, Sir Edward Coke, Bacon’s enemy and rival.  Thus England received the only patent law then in existence.

We have a convincing proof that even before the Statute of Monopolies, wrongly considered by many as the origin of patents, these, although by no means so common as to-day, were already familiar to the general public.  In 1616 the King’s Servants performed at Blackfriars in London a comedy by Ben Jonson, The Devil is an Ass.  This play deals with ‘projectors,’ half inventors, half swindlers, always full of schemes; in short, an early seventeenth-century edition of the later company promoters.

In Ben Jonson’s play, which, incidentally, contains the earliest literary mention of a patent known to the writer, we have even two such projectors.  One of them, Lady Tailbush, is a ‘lady projectress,’ and her male counterpart, Meercraft, describes her merits so:

She and I now

Are on a project for the fact and venting

Of a new kind of fucus, paint for ladies,

To serve the kingdom: wherein she herself

Hath travailed, specially by way of service

Unto her sex, and hopes to get the monopoly

As the reward of her invention.

Act III. scene i.

Meercraft has, among other schemes, the idea of getting a patent for hygienic toothpicks, sealed; and sold with instruction as to their use (Act IV. scene i.).  But his great achievement is disclosed in Act V. scene iii.

MEERCRAF: Have I desery’d this from you two, for all My pains at Court, to get you each a patent?

GILTHEAD (a goldsmith): For what ?

MEERCHAFT: Upon my project for the forks.


GILTHEAD: Forks! what be they?

MEERCRAFT: The laudable use of forks,

Brought into custom, here, as they are in Italy,

To the sparing of napkins.

Gilthead to have the making of all those

Of gold and silver, for the better personages,

And you (viz. Sledge, a smith), of those of steel for the common sort,  And both by patent.

It is well known that Ben Jonson knew Thomas Coryate, who described in a curious book (Crudities) how he learned to use forks, common in Italy, but yet scarcely known in other countries.  Coryate became the laughingstock of his friends, who called him Furcifer.  It is probable that the passage quoted was likewise intended as a jibe at Coryate.

Ben Jonson lived at a time when Venice was fast declining and was being supplanted as a trading centre, first by Antwerp and then by London.  But Venice’s reputation as a place where inventions were encouraged was not yet dead.  Ben Jonson again furnishes the proof. In his Volpone we find another English projector, Sir Politick Would-be, who proposes to sell his mad inventions to the State of Venice (Act IV. scene i.).

We are approaching what is called the Industrial Revolution in British economic history; in plain words, the appearance of the steam engine and of more or less automatic textile machinery, two facts which transformed old crafts into modern industry.  This change was due largely to the existence of cheap coal in Britain and to the Act of Monopolies, which stimulated invention.

It is curious to note how two revolutionary events, the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution, both led to the introduction of patent laws, at a moment when there was only one country, Great Britain, so opposed to these revolutions, which had already a patent system.

This requires some explanation.  These two revolutionary countries gave birth to inventions which were revolutionary too, although not in the political sense of that


word.  About 1750 Benjamin Franklin created a sensation, as we would say now, with his lightning-rod.  For centuries thunder and lightning had been looked on with awe as a sign of divine anger, and however incredible it appears now, some of the best minds of that time were so impressed by Franklin’s invention that they really thought that a new era had begun, in which man was to be the complete master of Nature.  In France, about 1780, the brothers Montgolfier made the first aircraft, and so fulfilled one of the oldest dreams of mankind.  Such inventions helped to increase the free-thinking tendencies of the eighteenth century.   Turgot, not a revolutionary, but a great French statesman of the old regime, coined a Latin hexameter in praise of Franklin in his double role of revolutionary and inventor :

Eripuit coelo fulmen, mox sceptraque tyrannis.

(He robbed Heaven of its bolts, and tyrants of their sceptres),

and that parallel between Heaven and tyrants is very significant.

Franklin, Jefferson - also an inventor - and Washington, deeply interested in inventions, were the chief architects of the new State.  It is not surprising, therefore, that the new American Constitution included a provision concerning patents; the actual patent law was voted by Congress in 1790.

But in France, where the revolution was more extreme in every way, arose a legal novelty; the notion that an inventor has a natural right of property in his invention.  It was probably the Bernard Shaw of the period - the watchmaker and inventor Caron, better known to us, under the name of Beaumarchais as author of The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville - who mentioned for the first time that kind of property.  A few years later the French Revolution started, and Mirabeau, great admirer of Franklin, formulated that principle in the National Assembly.  In 1791 a bill concerning patents was reported to the House by a most curious member of the Assembly, the Chevalier Stanislas de Boufflers.  Boufflers, who was born in Lorraine, and whose mother was


the mistress of Stanislas I., King of Poland and Duke of Lorraine, was already famous as a frivolous poet.  Neverless he introduced the bill with a most solemn speech and had it passed without difficulty.  During the nineteenth century other Continental countries followed the example of France.

The later story of patents has little romance about it and has interest only for the specialist, but the origin of patents, of, which it has been possible to give only a few glimpses, provides one of the most curious chapters in the history of civilisation.